Canzon: The Yearly Slain
Today I’d like to share a lovely poem by Ezra Pound drawn from Canzoni & Ripostes by Pound and T. E. Hulme.
The poem was conceived as a response to Frederic Manning’s charming but inferior “Korè“. The subject of both poems is the goddess Persephone, daughter of Demeter and queen of the Underworld, sometimes called Kore, or maiden.
The locus classicus of Persephone’s well-known story is the Homeric “Hymn to Demeter“, written in honor of her mother, goddess of corn, known as Ceres to the Romans. One day, while gathering flowers, Persephone was seized by Hades, Lord of the Underworld, who dragged her below the earth to make her his queen. Demeter was heartbroken by the loss of her daughter and abandoned her office, and the land became barren and the fields infertile.
This time of infertility is widely interpreted in European literature as autumn and winter. However, in Greece, the time of infertility is not winter, but summer, when the fields lie untilled as the hard earth bakes beneath the harsh Mediterranean sun. The great Greek fertility festival honoring Demeter’s return to activity, the Thesmophoria, was held in autumn, at the beginning of the planting season.
Pound and Manning associate Persephone’s absence with winter, and beautifully employ melancholy autumnal images to signify her departure. Using the more generic term for the goddess, Kore, or maiden, they transpose the story onto a higher plane of generality. The loss of the maiden is also the loss of the beloved, and the sorrow of solitude is externalized by the falling away of the summer leaves.
As you read the poem, note the intricate and demanding rhyme scheme. Each stanza is ABCDEFG, repeating precisely throughout the entire poem (i.e., the first lines of every stanza rhyme, and so forth). This rhyme scheme is developed and perfected by the great Provençal Troubadour Arnaut Daniel, whom Pound regarded as perhaps the greatest of all poets. If the poem is slowly read aloud, the rhyme scheme produces a powerful musical effect that binds the whole together.
Canzon: The Yearly Slain
(Written in reply to Manning’s “Korè.”)
“Et huiusmodi stantiae usus est fere in omnibus
cantionibus suis Arnaldus Danielis et nos eum secuti
Dante, De Vulgari Eloquio, II. 10.
Ah! red-leafed time hath driven out the rose
And crimson dew is fallen on the leaf
Ere ever yet the cold white wheat be sown
That hideth all earth’s green and sere and red;
The Moon-flower’s fallen and the branch is bare,
Holding no honey for the starry bees;
The Maiden turns to her dark lord’s demesne.
Fairer than Enna’s field when Ceres sows
The stars of hyacinth and puts off grief,
Fairer than petals on May morning blown
Through apple-orchards where the sun hath shed
His brighter petals down to make them fair;
Fairer than these the Poppy-crowned One flees,
And Joy goes weeping in her scarlet train.
The faint damp wind that, ere the even, blows
Piling the west with many a tawny sheaf,
Then when the last glad wavering hours are mown
Sigheth and dies because the day is sped;
This wind is like her and the listless air
Wherewith she goeth by beneath the trees,
The trees that mock her with their scarlet stain.
Love that is born of Time and comes and goes!
Love that doth hold all noble hearts in fief!
As red leaves follow where the wind hath flown,
So all men follow Love when Love is dead.
O Fate of Wind! O Wind that cannot spare,
But drivest out the Maid, and pourest lees
Of all thy crimson on the wold again,
Kore my heart is, let it stand sans gloze!
Love’s pain is long, and lo, love’s joy is brief!
My heart erst alway sweet is bitter grown;
As crimson ruleth in the good green’s stead,
So grief hath taken all mine old joy’s share
And driven forth my solace and all ease
Where pleasure bows to all-usurping pain.
Crimson the hearth where one last ember glows!
My heart’s new winter hath no such relief,
Nor thought of Spring whose blossom he hath known
Hath turned him back where Spring is banishèd.
Barren the heart and dead the fires there,
Blow! O ye ashes, where the winds shall please,
But cry, “Love also is the Yearly Slain.”
Be sped, my Canzon, through the bitter air!
To him who speaketh words as fair as these,
Say that I also know the “Yearly Slain.”